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How Not to Fight Against Culture-First Business Theory


, BambooHR

Full disclosure: BambooHR fully supports the idea of a culture-first business strategy.  

Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. So too, it seems, when it comes to business, because for every theory attempting to establish good business practice, there appears an opponent determined to stand and fight against it.

One such theory is the relatively new concept of culture-first business strategy: In simple terms, the theory states that by prioritizing culture—which includes a focus on the emotional well-being of your workforce—you will create bottom-line value.

There is a small group doing its best to refute the theory, calling it a focus on “employee happiness” and arguing that happiness is not a means to an end, but the end product of success. Rather than seeing this immediately as the chicken-or-egg argument it is, they offer that the recent focus on employee happiness is a trend that’s both distracting to legitimate business and in fact counterproductive. Happiness, they say, arrives primarily as the result of exceptional performance, and attempting to manufacture it through other means only breeds complacency.

But culture-first business strategy isn’t two-dimensional. It’s not just about “happiness”—nor does it guarantee better performance from your employees and money in your pocket. That said, despite accusations to the contrary, statistics have shown myriad ways in which culture affects almost every measurable business metric, from performance and pay rate to leadership and loyalty.

Its opponents use evidence to back up their arguments. They point to studies and statistics that sever ties between job satisfaction and productivity, making the case that the former (“happiness”) doesn’t always lead to the latter (“performance”). More than anything, this reinforces the old idea that you can find supporting data to back up almost any argument.

In this writer’s opinion, however, the happiness-is-dangerous camp loses the debate for a number of reasons:

For one, they seem to come off as somehow jilted by proponents of people-first strategies. One author refers to the theory as “junk science” (which it is not) and to those who promote it as “highly emotional,” “resistant to metrics” and “hostile” to any debate. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that name-calling and unsubstantiated ad hominem attacks are bound to undermine any argument that might follow.

Second, they draw connections where there are none and create relationships that do not exist. In another article, the author states that since studies show gender- and ethnically-homogenous teams are happier than diverse ones, and that more diverse teams perform between 15 percent and 35 percent better than non-diverse teams, then a happy team is probably both homogenous and underperforming. By that highly questionable logic, you’re warned as a business owner to be wary of happiness. Shouldn’t you instead be worried that your team lacks diversity? For that matter, just because homogenous teams are happier doesn’t mean that diverse teams are unhappy, just that they aren’t as happy. I digress.

Third, they use unqualified blanket statements like “happiness efforts are expensive” in an effort make elevating employee morale sound pointless and shortsighted. Not only are they oversimplifying the theme to make it fit their agenda, they go a step further by pigeonholing the execution into a stereotypical box of meaningless perks.

Lastly, if the fallacies and false equivalencies weren’t bad enough, they often contradict these simplified definitions or admit that despite everything they’ve said, happiness, engagement and satisfaction are all likely important to a company’s survival.

I could go on highlighting the flaws in the case against culture, but if you aren’t already impatient to hear the point you’d be asleep by the time I finished.

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Employee Happiness Doesn’t Come at the Expense of the Business

The point is, it should be obvious that putting the well-being of your people atop your list of priorities doesn’t mean your other priorities—things like financial goals, product launches, customer satisfaction and other traditional business objectives—go out the window. Culture-centric strategy is based on the idea that by elevating employee engagement, fulfillment, and satisfaction to the same level as those other goals, you increase the likelihood that you will achieve all of them. It’s also worth noting that just because you may not see your sales numbers increasing or your team putting products to market in record time, that doesn’t mean your bottom line isn’t being affected; for one, happier and more engaged employees are more loyal to their employers, which means reduced turnover, recruiting and training costs.

Finally, when you define the goal of culture creation as merely “happiness,” you ignore words like engagement, fulfillment, satisfaction, contentment, vitality and all the other good feelings that come out of a positive work culture. And while perks are often a part of a successful morale-improving strategy, there are many, many ways to create a great workplace, and not all of them cost money. The most important element is that your tactics fit your workforce, and that when you offer recognition or a reward, it is truly valuable. If you think that beanbags, foosball tables and free sodas are the first steps in building a cultural foundation, you are almost guaranteed to fulfill the doomsayer prophecy of negative return on your investment (unless you happen to oversee a college dormitory).

Success as defined by measurable performance gains may be satisfying, but it is not the only thing that determines satisfaction for employees or employers. For that matter, peak performance in the moment is a shortsighted objective for any organization wishing to remain healthy in the long term. Happiness aside, an engaged workforce and a strong culture are critical elements for success, financial and otherwise. While they argue against their own inaccurate assessment of employee happiness and how culture defenders attempt to nurture it, these naysayers uncover hints of those elements that really matter—collaboration, recognition, diversity, openness, challenge, compassion—those that, ironically, a successful culture-centric business strategy already encompasses.

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What’s your opinion of culture-centric business practices? We want to hear from you. Share your perspective in the comments.

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